The Class Ceiling in Doctoral Education: Social Class in the Formation of Scholars

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Marjorie L. DeVault


Doctoral Training, Higher Education, Narrative Analysis, Social Class

Subject Categories



The Class Ceiling in Doctoral Education: Social Class in the Formation of Scholars is a study of the journey to and through the Ph.D. for individuals from working class backgrounds. Using in-depth interviewing and a narrative analysis approach, specific attention is focused on classed experiences resulting from academic engagement. The project addresses the following questions: How do "first generation" Ph.D.s from "working class backgrounds" describe and story their doctoral education experience? And how does class appear in, and impact academic persistence in their stories? By examining the representational strategies these Ph.D.s use, the study animates discourse on social inequalities in higher education in the United States.

All but one of the 17 participants in the study are in disciplines within the Humanities, a field unique for its high rate of doctoral program attrition and historic composition of Ph.D.s from families where both parents hold advanced degrees. Findings reveal that class is a significant element in the stories of these Ph.D.s, impacting their understandings of relationships, self, and advanced training in the disciplines. In this study, participants reported that the ability to manage class conflict over time was an important element in the ability to persist academically. This finding suggests that the underrepresentation of Ph.D.s from working class backgrounds is not simply a case of a preference not to enter doctoral programs, or to persist once in them, but rather an indication that these students suffer socially, academically and financially even while persisting through school. The study's findings are presented in a series of five individual profiles and a discussion of themes found throughout the participant's narratives.

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